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Breaker Morant: Apparently court martial dramas really do it for me

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Breaker Morant is a movie I added to my Netflix queue in a rash of war movies when I came across a community-generated list of the greatest war movies of all time.  I had heard very little about it beforehand, which I can only assume is due to the fact that it's an Australian movie.  It was nominated for an Oscar back in 1980, for best writing in an adapted screenplay, so it apparently is not completely under the radar here in the US.

The title character, Breaker Morant, is a Lieutenant in the Bushveldt Carbineers in the Boer War, which was a conflict fought around the turn of the 20th century in South Africa between the British and Dutch empires.  The opening shot sets the scene: Morant and two of his subordinates are summoned to a court martial for the execution of several prisoners of war, where Morant stiffly protests that he was acting under orders.  The rest of the movie deals with the unraveling the sticky particulars.

The film is a powerful example of what a military courtroom drama can do well.  This is the second such drama that I've seen in six months, joining A Few Good Men.  Like A Few Good Men, I appreciated this one immensely.  I'm not sure if that means that I really love the genre, or if I simply like the themes shared by both, where the common soldier is caught following unwritten orders and is unjustly court-martialed when it becomes convenient to deny that those orders ever occurred.

We the audience are clearly supposed to sympathize with Morant and the defendants, as we are privy to a conversation between Lord Kitchener (yes, the same Lord Kitchener who would later be used on WWI recruiting posters) and his subordinate, where Kitchener makes it clear that he needs a court martial of those soldiers in order to bring the Dutch to the peace talks table.  Kitchener has no qualms with breaking a few eggs to make his omelet.  Morant happens to be an easy target, as he is a "colonial" Australian in the predominantly English army, and Kitchener's order to execute prisoners of war was never written for Morant, only communicated orally through a (since killed) intermediary officer.

The format of the movie is its strongest point.  The movie is told through flashbacks at the court testimonials, as told by the witnesses at the trial.  We never actually hear Morant tell his story, which means we never have conclusive proof that he's innocent.  All of our evidence for Morant's innocence, like the evidence for conviction, is circumstantial.  The laconic storytelling is an ingenious film device that keeps just enough doubt in the viewer's mind, and further intensifies the themes of duty and following dubious orders.  It leaves the story more open to interpretation, and compels the viewer to pay more attention, hoping for the conclusive proof that the movie never provides.  The movie is all the stronger as a result.

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